HISTORIC AKAROA provides an overview of Akaroa’s history and architectural development. The story of Akaroa is told from its first settlement by Maori, through the visits of early Europeans and the founding of Akaroa by French settlers in 1840, to the growth of the colonial town in the 19th century and its development in the 20th century.



The Maori phrase “tangata whenua” means “the people of the land”. It is used to describe the Maori people who settled New Zealand, coming from eastern Polynesia, several hundred years ago. They were already occupying the land when the first Europeans arrived. Banks Peninsula was settled by the early Maori probably 700 or 800 years ago.

When they arrived Banks Peninsula, was clothed with forest prolific in bird life from the shore almost to the tops of the highest hills. Rich food resources were also available from the sea that surrounded the Peninsula. Banks Peninsula was at about the southern limit for the growing of kumara, the sweet potato which was the staple of Maori agriculture. That the Peninsula was an abundant source of food is reflected in one of its older names – Te Pataka o Rakaihautu, the food storehouse of Rakaihautu. Rakaihautu was one of the earliest explorers of the South Island. The range of hills on the far side of Akaroa Harbour from the town of Akaroa is the ko (digging stick) with which Rakaihautu scooped out the great southern lakes of the South Island. The ko was called Tuhiraki, which is the name of the peak the French later called Mount Bossu. The Peninsula was also known to the Maori as Horomaka.

The bay on which Akaroa was founded, now called French Bay, was Paka Ariki. The tribe which occupied most of the South Island at the time the first Europeans arrived was Ngai Tahu. Ngai Tahu, who


moved south from the North Island in the 18th century. Ngai Tahu had been preceded by earlier tribes including Waitaha and Ngati Mamoe. Some Ngai Tahu intermarried with people of these earlier tribes and adopted many of their traditions. Ngai Tahu’s main settlement was at Kaiapoi, north of Christchurch. Several hapu (family groups) occupied different parts of the Peninsula. The sites of many Ngai Tahu settlements still bear traditional names and on some can be seen faint traces of earth walls, ditches, house platforms and kumara gardens.

Banks Peninsula was included in the land purchases of the late 1840s and 1850s which saw ownership of most of the land of Canterbury pass from Maori to the colonial government and so to European settlers. Ngai Tahu were paid derisively small sums for vast tracts of land. Among the small reserves set aside for Ngai Tahu after these “purchases” was one at Onuku, a modest bay a few kilometres south of Akaroa. The Treaty of Waitangi had been signed at Onuku in 1840 by two Ngai Tahu chiefs. There has been a continuous Maori presence at Onuku ever since. A small, picturesque church of 1876 and a modern carved wharenui (meeting house) called Karaweko stand at Onuku.



The first Europeans known to have sighted Banks Peninsula were the British explorer James Cook and those with him on the Endeavour on his first Pacific voyage. In February 1770, sailing some distance off-shore, they saw the high hills of the Peninsula. Mistaking the land mass for an island, Cook named the feature Banks Island, after the naturalist, Joseph Banks, who was on board the Endeavour. It was not until 1809, when Captain Chase tried to sail his ship the Pegasus between the “island” and the mainland was it established that the land mass was a peninsula.

Not long after Cook’s visits, European and American sealers and whalers, and a little later flax traders, began to frequent New Zealand waters.

The founding of Sydney in 1788 increased the presence of British vessels off New Zealand’s coasts. A whaling vessel may have anchored in Akaroa Harbour as early as 1792, but the first confirmed landing on the shores of the harbour by Europeans was in 1815-16. By the 1820s and 1830s, whaling vessels from several nations were anchoring in Peninsula bays. The shore whaling station which George Hempelmann established in one of the Peninsula’s southern bays, Peraki, in 1837 was the first permanent European settlement in Canterbury.

Earlier, in 1830, a British trader, Captain Stewart, brought a North Island chief, Te Rauparaha of Ngati Toa, south to enable him to attack the settlement of a paramount Ngai Tahu chief, Te Maiharanui, at Takapuneke. Takapuneke is just south of where Akaroa was later


founded. Te Rauparaha captured Te Maiharanui and destroyed his settlement. Many Ngai Tahu were killed in this attack. Te Rauparaha returned a little later to destroy the pa (fortified village) Ngai Tahu had built on the peninsula called Onawe at the head of the harbour. Captain Stewart’s complicity in Te Rauparaha’s attack on Takapuneke was a key incident in the British decision to acquire sovereignty over New Zealand and so one of the main events leading up to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

Under the Treaty, sovereignty over New Zealand passed from the Maori chiefs to the British Crown.



Among the whalers who put into Akaroa Harbour in the late 1830s was a French captain, Jean Francois Langlois. Langlois returned to France with a land deed signed by some local Maori, believing he had purchased all of Banks Peninsula. The Nanto-Bordelaise Company, with tacit support and assistance from the French Government, decided to found a French settlement on Banks Peninsula. It sent out the Comte de Paris, with close to 60 settlers aboard, in 1840. The settlers were mainly French, but included a handful of Germans.

The French Government also sent out a warship, L’Aube, under Captain Lavaud, to support the settlers. There was a French naval presence in Akaroa Harbour until 1846. By the time the French arrived in Akaroa in August 1840, New Zealand was already British, and the Union Jack was flying from a flag staff on Green’s Point. It had been raised a few days earlier to demonstrate to the French arrivals that the South Island was British.


Despite this setback to the plans to establish a French colony on the South Island, the French settlers remained, and their descendants are among the present-day residents of Akaroa. By the 1850s, after the founding of the Canterbury Settlement and of Christchurch in 1850, the French were outnumbered by settlers of other nationalities, especially British. The small French village of the 1840s, with buildings which had a markedly French look about them, became a typical New Zealand colonial town, with buildings that followed mainly British architectural precedents. But Akaroa has the distinction of being the only town in New Zealand founded by French settlers.



Through the second half of the 19th century, Akaroa grew steadily, acquiring dwellings, business premises and public buildings. By 1900 it was an established town offering a full range of services and facilities to its own residents and to people living in other parts of the Peninsula, though in an age of poor roads, many Peninsula bays had their own schools, shops, churches and public buildings.

Sawmilling was an important early industry. After the native forest had been felled for timber or burned to clear land for pasture, farming became the main land use. Dairying became well established on the Peninsula before the end of the 19th century. The land cleared from forest proved excellent for an important pasture species – cocksfoot. For several decades the harvesting of cocksfoot seed was a major Peninsula industry. The seed was in demand in the North Island and even further afield to establish new pastures.

A fishing fleet operated out of Akaroa. With the Peninsula’s roads rough and narrow until well into the 20th century, shipping played an important part in Akaroa’s life. People and goods came and went from Akaroa by sea. The ships providing the links between Akaroa and Lyttelton and other ports tied up at a series of wharves.

After the railway was completed from Christchurch to Little River in 1886,  a coach service over Hilltop brought holiday-makers to Akaroa.

Tourism, which was to play an increasingly important role in Akaroa’s life as the 20th century advanced, began in the 19th century and boarding houses and hotels were among the larger buildings put up in Akaroa before 1900.


Today Akaroa is fortunate to have one of the largest and best-preserved collections of 19th century buildings of any New Zealand town. Tourism, which was to play an increasingly important role in Akaroa’s life as the 20th century advanced, began in the 19th century and boarding houses and hotels were among the larger buildings put up in Akaroa before 1900. Today Akaroa is fortunate to have one of the largest and best-preserved collections of 19th century buildings of any New Zealand town.




 Akaroa’s population at the end of the 20th century was about the same as it had been when the century opened. But the town itself had grown substantially. It became increasingly popular as a holiday destination for people from Christchurch and many of the town’s dwellings are now holiday homes, occupied for only part of each year.

The town’s businesses prosper by providing accommodation and other services to visitors from elsewhere in New Zealand and overseas. But the town still has a resident population of around 550, a local school and shops catering to locals as well as tourists. Farming and fishing are less important to the local economy of Akaroa than they were, although the Peninsula is still farmed and the sea supports newer industries – a salmon farm on the far side of the harbour from the town and boat services which take tourists out on the harbour to view it scenery and wildlife .

Until the very end of the 20th century Akaroa changed very little


physically. Much of its new development was up the valleys that lead down to the harbour’s edge or well back on the spurs separating the valleys. Most new buildings were still detached dwellings surrounded by gardens. The public and commercial buildings erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continued to meet the town’s needs. The historic heart of Akaroa changed very little from the end of World War I until the 1990s. In that last decade of the century, some new buildings which were larger than most older Akaroa buildings, of different architectural styles and constructed of unsympathetic materials provoked concern about preserving the historic charm and ambience of the village.

In 1999, after the Akaroa Civic Trust had sought recognition of and protection for the town, the historic parts of Akaroa were registered as an historic area by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.



Akaroa is recognised today as an exceptionally well preserved example of a New Zealand colonial town of the second half of the 19th century. It is one of the few places in New Zealand where the character of the town is still set by historic buildings.

Recognition that this special character of Akaroa was under threat prompted the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1999 to register the older parts of the town as an historic area. (The town’s foreshore had been registered as an historic area in 1996). In addition, a number of individual historic buildings have been registered by the Historic Place Trust. Registration by the Historic Places Trust does not afford the areas or buildings registered automatic protection, but it does ensure that the Trust is consulted by the Christchurch City Council when it is considering applications for resource consent to erect new buildings or significantly alter older ones in Akaroa.

Besides the buildings registered by the Historic Places Trust, a number of other buildings have also been listed by the Christchurch City Council as buildings of historic interest. Listing affords the buildings limited protection under the provisions of the Banks Peninsula District Plan (a plan which the City Council ‘inherited’ from the former Banks Peninsula District Council). The City Council has full discretion over granting consent for building work in the Town Centre and Residential Conservation zone of Akaroa, which means that it can refuse consent for work which meets all the other requirements of the District Plan if the work is deemed to harm the historic character of the town. There are also height restrictions and rules about density contained in the District Plan which help ensure that new buildings will not dominate or overpower the existing historic buildings. The District Plan also contains Design Guidelines which help ensure that the historic character of the town will not be

eroded by new buildings which are out of scale or of intrusive size or appearance. The City Council can decline resource consent for a new building or for alterations to an existing building if the proposal fails to comply with the requirements of the District Plan or does not respect the historic character of Akaroa.

The historic character of Akaroa remains under threat. Proposals for new buildings of inappropriate scale or design continue to be lodged, even for sites within the historic area. Small wooden buildings on large sections, which are important elements of Akaroa’s historic townscapes, are at risk because land with development potential in Akaroa has become so valuable. Akaroa is recognised as having a nationally important but fragile historic character that could still be eroded and damaged. The Banks Peninsula District Plan, administered by the Christchurch City Council, contains objectives, rules and policies to ensure Akaroa’s character is protected. But threats to Akaroa’s character persist.

The need remains for vigilance on the part of bodies like the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the Akaroa Civic Trust, which have been largely responsible for preserving the historic character of the town in the past.


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Akaroa Civic Trust, P O Box 43, Akaroa 7542, New Zealand